Over the last few months, there has been a lot of talk in educational circles about the decline of writing by hand – especially in the classroom. According to reports, students’ handwriting is now so bad that teachers and examiners are finding it difficult to make sense of it. In response, Cambridge University has announced plans to allow laptops in exams instead of pens and paper. This move has led to fears that, if the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world gives up on penmanship, it won’t be wrong before everyone else does too.
In response, there has been a backlash against technology and its impact on this “vital” skill. But, when it comes to providing pupils with the tools they need to survive in the modern world, could educators be focusing on the wrong competence? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about a lack of digital literacy in our classrooms?
Why are educators so concerned about handwriting?
We all know that physically writing things down can help pupils to understand the subject at hand. Studies have shown that writing by hand can lead to a deeper level of learning than just taking notes on a laptop. So, it’s no wonder that educators are worried about its demise. But, this argument fails to take into account how edtech should be used. Technology isn’t a straight swap for the pen and paper. It’s not about using new tools in the same old ways.
Instead, by incorporating real-world technology into the classroom, teachers can uncover fresh ways to keep pupils engaged; adding extra value and relevance to lessons in ways that are both mentally stimulating and fun. For example, while pupils once learned from textbooks, today, interactive displays, augmented reality, virtual reality, gamification, apps, and 3D printers are being used to create multi-sensory, immersive learning experiences. Using technology in this manner and allowing students to learn in ways which are relevant to them is key to instilling deeper learning competencies.
Another argument for picking up the pen is that it stimulates cognitive development. That it has a positive impact, not just on literacy, but other disciplines too; and this may very well be true. But the argument that technology only instils mechanical skills while handwriting gives children resilience, creativity and the ability to interact socially reflects a fundamental lack of understanding over how technology can be used to support learning and build soft skills.
Take collaboration for example. Key to creating well-rounded citizens in the 21st Century; collaborative skills enable people to work together, to interact appropriately, and to exchange and listen to different views. Collaborative learning can take a variety of formats, such as quick, active learning activities or long-term group projects; and rather than hindering co-operation in the classroom, in many schools technology is actually enhancing this way of working.
Ultimately, rather than harming the skills that handwriting instills, technology has the potential to see them evolve. But merely using technology is not enough to prepare pupils for the modern world.
A lack of digital literacy
Today, technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. The online world provides platforms that allow us to connect and collaborate. It opens up opportunities to learn, and it empowers innovation in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. So, when it comes to making sure pupils are employable, developing technical skills is crucial. But IT proficiency and digital literacy are not the same thing, and UK educational policy is failing to prepare pupils for a new breed of workplace.
Digital literacy requires critical thinking skills, an awareness of the necessary standards of behaviour expected in online environments, and an understanding of the shared social issues created by digital technologies. But a failure to teach students how to thrive and survive in our internet dominated world is leading to a rise in unhappy and anxious children. Even worse, while younger generations are being labelled as “digital natives” when it comes to safety, they are often no more literate than their parents.
Of course, technology is here to stay, so it is vital that we all do more to address this issue. The House of Lords agrees, stating that: “digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics and be resourced and taught accordingly.”
Getting the right balance
When you get down to it, handwriting has become less important because, as a skill, it is no longer as necessary. When was the last time you sat down to write a letter? What’s more, even when handwriting was a critical educational pillar, this didn’t automatically produce engaged students. In fact, there are many circumstances where a lack of handwriting skills held children back; where it became a barrier to their learning potential.
Today, few educators (if any) would argue that teaching handwriting should be stopped altogether. Indeed, some of the best educational technologies (e.g. Promethean ActivPanel) combine educational apps and other content with a smooth pen-on-paper writing performance.
But it is important to adopt a rational approach when it comes to deciding where to prioritise resources. Perhaps it is time that handwriting did take a back seat and allowed us to focus on more relevant classroom activities and challenges? Because, amidst a digital revolution, the impact of not teaching digital literacy could be disastrous.